INTERVIEW Synthetics to Shalimar

Chandler Burr Speaks About the World of Scent

Art is a sensual experience in each of its forms.

Paying a visit to a contemporary museum, to the opera, or to a particularly exquisite bistro never fails to herald the breathtaking beauty that our senses can create and detect. Who hasn’t stood in awe before a Monet, shed a tear during Madame Butterfly, or furrowed a brow before an exotic dish? The senses are the ultimate medium through which we experience the joy of life.

Often a bystander to the mental perception of art, scent is (quite ironically) the most deeply corporeal and imaginative of all the senses. This most precise ability permits us to detect the sharp hint of citrus, the questionably musty signature of a city street, or the musk romanticism of an Oriental spice. What better medium to express the natural beauty of scent than through perfume?

The art of creating a perfume begins in a cosmetic chemist’s laboratory, mixing together an enticing blend of molecules. Synthetics (molecules created in a lab) and absolutes (aromatic, oily mixtures extracted from plants) together can yield an infinite spectrum of scents. Perfumers work to create a scent that expresses the vision of their clients, whether that inspiration be a city, a painting, an experience, or an instance in time.

In order to better understand the world of perfume, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the world’s premiere experts on the subject: Chandler Burr. Burr, who writes the “Scent Notes” column of The New York Times, has written several books about perfume, the theory of scent, and the industry that brings them together. He is known for the unique means through which he conveys the nature of perfume, through descriptions as exotic, interactive, tactile, and engrossing as the scents themselves.

The Tech: What is your favorite part of your work?

Chandler Burr: Writing the reviews — which is a very strange answer. I’m pretty sure it was Dorothy Parker who said, “I hate to write, I love having written,” but this is the only case in which I love the actual act of siting, thinking, and the fingers hitting they keys. I’m completely absorbed in it. This is because, I think, art criticism is a completely different kind of writing than any other.

TT: How would you describe the appeal of perfume to an individual unfamiliar with its intricacies?

CB: Several ways. One, I’ve discovered, is simply communicating to the reader the oh so astonishing idea that perfume is an artistic medium. (“Huh! Hm! Uh … yeah, I’ve never thought of it like that.”) Then the fact that, just as a painter uses paints to compose a painting, perfumers use raw materials, absolutes, synthetic molecules, to create their olfactory paintings. And then simply describe the olfactory work of art and what it makes you feel, how well or poorly it’s executed and why. Do it well, and anyone can get it.

TT: One of your books, The Emperor of Scent, discusses Luca Turin’s vibration theory of olfaction. What inspired you to write about this subject?

CB: The absolutely fascinating story, exactly the same thing any reporter is looking for. Luca is a genius, and it’s interesting to spend time with a genius, and he’s got a huge, wonderful, difficult, open, generous, vindictive, explosive, startling, compelling personality. The story of what he’s done and, equally, what he’s been through mesmerized me. The book is, as all good books are, in the end about a human life and its vicissitudes and challenges and triumphs and dark places.

TT: Your work as the New York Times’ perfume critic is very much a balance between creativity, precision, and originality. Which do you feel is most important when creating and marketing a perfume?

CB: You’re asking me a question the second part of which is officially outside my purview — I’m not a perfume industry exec — but creating is artistic vision, creativity, the willingness to do something different, the wisdom to know where to stop doing something different, and money, money, money. Let the perfumer put the raw materials he needs into the juice. Launch: There are many, many, many perfectly good stock bottles. For God’s sake, choose the right one and modify it as needed and be done with it. This does not pertain to Britney Spears, where you need those cartoon-like Disney-deep-purple globes with the fake diamonds, and even their “Midnight Fantasy” is a good juice. The packaging is, I’m sorry to say, important, but less is more. Then comes the most important part, and the industry doesn’t have a clue how to do this: cut all the coy, cutesy secretive crap — it’s as insanely tiresome as it is pettily irritating and makes you want to roll your eyes and hurl the bottle into the nearest trash can — and let reporters know how the creation worked with the real people who created it. Not following some moronic marketing script. But that’s not going to happen any time soon. The synthetic, faked marketing “story” which is in fact nothing more than the same superficial “There’s a sexy powerful woman” or “There’s a sexy man who’s being watched hungrily by women” or the reverse. Ech.

TT: What do you feel is the most exciting implication that your work may have?

CB: I am lucky enough to be in a position to propose to the world this startling idea that there’s an art form they never knew about.

TT: What topics or ideas are you currently researching?

CB: I’m trying to find a subject for my spring 2010 T:Style Women piece. Not easy.